By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
It’s pretty safe (and sad) to say that when I reflect back on how I spent the first half of my life, the majority of moments were lost to food and body obsession. What is even sadder is that I am so not alone. Millions of people lose millions of moments to the pursuit of perfecting their appearance.
Fortunately, as I healed, I felt inspired, as many do, to pass along what I had learned, and it has been an honor to spend the last three decades helping others overcome their food and body battles.
While many factors led me down the path of disorder, there were some significant steps that led me back home. Whether you are on your own path of healing, fully recovered, or guiding someone else along their way, may these steps be, or become, your new normal.
1. Out with Outcomes, In with Intuition
One of my most significant steps toward healing was when I began to take my focus off my appearance and into my intuition. After decades of calorie counting, point calculating, excessive exercise, and massive rebellion, my new vow was to turn inward for clarity instead of outward for results.
So instead of focusing on the lists of culturally deemed “good” and “bad” foods, I began to ask myself what I truly felt like eating. Then, I would stay tuned for the amount that felt loving to my body. It was literally the biggest do-over of my life.
Prior to my do-over, I would wake up most mornings, having already decided what I “should” eat for the day, or go on a bender of rebellion from my previously planned menu.
My new vows morphed into something like this:
When preparing to feed myself, I will tune into my body and ask it what it truly wants. I will feed myself like I would feed someone I love, someone who does not diet or binge. There are no longer any good or bad foods. There are simply foods, and my body will tell me what it wants, needs, likes, and loves.
And somehow, after years of restricting and rebelling, this new voice began to emerge from the brambles of my previously disordered thoughts.
Sometimes, when I tuned inside, I got crystal clear clarity on what and how much to eat. Other times, I was not so sure. I would then try to imagine that I was choosing foods for someone I love. When my mind would bark its terrified cries about how out of control it all felt, I would remind my mind that we were trying things a new way. Our previous system had gotten us nowhere but obsessing, starving, and binging. There was a new sheriff in town. My weight was no longer any of my business. What became my business was how to respectfully and lovingly feed, treat, and speak to my body in any given moment.
So, instead of entering the kitchen or opening up a restaurant menu, already knowing what I “should” have, or “better have cause I never get to have,” I would ask my body what it truly wanted and then stay tuned for the amount that felt truly loving. And for the first time in my adult life, I began to eat what my body and my wise intuition guided me to eat. And a loving amount became satisfying.
Next, I had to wash my brain from the brainwashing it had received from the fitness industry. So instead of telling myself I “should work-out,” or go for a run, or walk a certain distance, I began to ask myself if I felt like moving, and if so, how? Then, I’d stay tuned for how the movement felt in my body, not what I thought it would do to my body.
If I was out for a walk or a bike ride and I got an inkling to stop or turn towards home, I would, regardless of how long I’d been going. If I had a few free hours and thought I “should” get some exercise but really, I felt like resting, I rested. I began to go in for my answers, in the moment, rather than out toward some falsely promised results. Results no longer had a seat at my table.
2. Releasing the Notion of Perfection
I had taken my internal vows to let go of dieting, rioting, and compulsive exercise. But there were still times when I just wasn’t sure what to eat, how much to eat, how much to move, or when to rest. I’d ask myself my usual list of questions in an attempt to tune into my physical and emotional needs. I’d ask myself how I would feed or treat someone I love. And still, there were many times when I felt unsure of how to feed, treat, and care for myself. This brings us to essential step number two… releasing the notion of perfection.
May I just say, Phew!
While some internal dialogue is necessary for clarity, I realized (surprise, surprise!) that I was trying to intuitively eat, intuitively move, and intuitively live, perfectly. And since perfection was part of what got me into my eating disorder in the first place, it certainly was not going to help me climb out! Deciding and reminding myself that I didn’t have to eat, feel, or be perfect, was a huge relief. I just needed to continue inquiring with my body to see what it needed, wanted, liked, and loved. And just like any relationship, it didn’t have to be (nor would it ever be) perfect. Ironically, loosening the reigns of perfection would often help me get clarity, and even when it didn’t, with perfection off the table, I was off the hook!
With the volume of perfectionistic thinking turned down, I was often left with some spaces in my day, or my mind. I had been quite used to filling my spaces with food and body obsession, so what to do with space? Sometimes it meant I had some deeper feelings to feel— the ones that fed into my eating disorder in the first place. Sometimes it meant I had to tolerate being full until my food digested. Sometimes I needed a healthy distraction. Sometimes I had to get creative and try to find new ways to fill up. Sometimes I needed to work with my unkind mind when it would try to have its perfectionistic way with me. But with a compassionate internal dialogue replacing an unkind monologue, I learned how to fill, or be with the spaces that mind quieting created.
My responses to perfectionistic pop-up thoughts sounded something like this:
I do not have be perfect. I do not have to eat what the diet industry tells us to eat. I do not have to exercise if I don’t feel like it. I do not have to look or be perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to have relationship glitches. We are not supposed to be happy all the time. I do not have to be perfect. I repeat, I do not have to be perfect!
And for the first time in my personal history of life on planet earth, my new mantra became, and remains: I do not have to be perfect.
3. Change Your Mind, Not Your Body
Until I discovered concepts like mindfulness, spirituality, and ummm, reality, nobody could’ve convinced me that my thoughts were not real. Until they did. And when I began to learn that my thoughts were simply recycled ideas that I’d learned from other people’s recycled ideas, I was floored. My thoughts had always seemed and felt so real. But I learned that thoughts were not the same as truth. After all, I could not see, touch, hold, or show someone else my thoughts, so how could they be actual, factual reality? And since it was my thoughts that led me to restrict, binge, and hate my body, this new development was very good news! It also led me to my third (and continual) essential step in my recovery process: Changing my mind, not my body.
I have often said that an eating disorder could equally be considered a thinking disorder. Once I became a therapist, I knew this to be even more true. I have countless examples of clients over the years, coming into my office one week, convinced that their bodies were unacceptable, unlovable, and their biggest problem, only to come back the following week, feeling great about how things were going in their lives. The difference being, in the first session, they were believing their unkind mind and in the next, they were not. In both sessions, they had the same exact body. What changed were their thoughts. Different thoughts. Different reality.
Believe me, I understand that changing our mind movies is not easy. When a person gets told enough times that something will bring them love, approval, and happily ever-after-ness, they believe it and naturally seek it. It’s human nature to seek approval and avoid criticism. Far too many of us have been taught that changing our appearance will change our lives for the better. And unfortunately, the vast majority of those messages tend not to include that the pursuit of perfecting our appearance robs us of the very happiness we are seeking.
I always thought that my biggest problem was my body, but I came to understand that my biggest problem was my thoughts. I needed to learn how to question, challenge, and upgrade my unkind mind. I needed to learn how to give myself the love and approval I had been seeking so I would always have it. We don’t go looking for what we already have and since love and approval are human needs, once we begin to give them to ourselves, we have them. Then anything else is simply an added bonus.
It’s pretty common practice to upgrade our computers and devices on a regular basis but how often do we upgrade our outdated thoughts? Thoughts that have been passed down for generations: “Good” and “bad” food rules, “good” and “bad” ways to look, feel, move, speak, and live. It’s no wonder disordered eating, substance abuse, excessive screen use, anxiety, and depression are at all-time highs. Our culture convinces far too many of us that changing our bodies will change our sense of ourselves. In truth, the only way to change our sense of ourselves is to change our sense of ourselves.
It takes awareness, dedication, and courage to change our minds, to eat what we want instead of what the diet industry tells us to eat, to move and rest in the ways our bodies want, instead of what the fitness industry says, to welcome our emotions, and to speak our truth. Healing from food and body issues is not an easy endeavor, but then neither is body hatred, restricting, binging, excessive exercise, depression, anxiety, or constant comparing. It takes a roll-up-your-sleeves
commitment to overcome body hatred and disordered eating in a culture that is swimming in unkind, unrealistic, untrue rules. But thankfully, it is worth the work.
May you not lose an ounce more of your precious time on this planet to body hatred. May you feed and treat your body with deep respect. May you move your body in ways that you love, and then rest, a lot. May you challenge any unkind thoughts that pop up on your internal screen. May you speak your truth. May you spend your time with people who want to hear your truth and respectfully tell you theirs. May you seek to know your hearts desires. May you live a balanced life overflowing with self-love.